Mimetic Tradition, Part I

September 20, 2007

The Mimetic Tradition Rant

Left wing American Orthodox intellectuals have a “thing” for Mimetic tradition. It used to be the way people ran their lives, and it was moderate, and in-sync with the times, and it kept frumkeit at bay while allowing for preservation of Jewish identities and practice in the American melting pot. The loss of this mimetic tradition is blamed on more or less everything in the world: the Holocaust, yeshivot, Artscroll, the reform movement, the hechsher on Oreos – you name it.

But other groups of Jews have lost their mimetic traditions a long, long time ago, and these are the Liberal Jews. The name “liberal” doesn’t explain why this happened, but the older names – “Reform” and “Reconstructionist” do. The thinking was that the tradition was something antiquated and that it had to be changed and reformulated. After cataclysmic moves that reshape practice like that, three things can happen:

  1. The reform will be branded as antiquated itself and the entire system of practices will be abandoned (e.g. Israeli secularists)

  2. The reform will become holy and there will be frum reformed practicioners (e.g. Southern Baptists)

  3. There will be a new reform ever so often (e.g. The URJ)

All three kinds of responses are essentially fundamentalist responses. The assumption of the new generation raised in the reformed tradition is that there is a truth to be found (or not found) beyond the practices learned in the home/congregation. They all display a (quite modern and contemporary) basic mistrust of previous generations and their practices. (This distrust also exists in Orthodox communities, which are also funamentalist in this way. But that’s a different story, which way too many people have written about already).

None of the responses has the ability or the power, apparently, to create an ongoing mimetic tradition. Why is this important? Well, it has several functions.

  1. It creates a sense of security in custom and practice. “We drive to shul because we’ve always driven to shul”. “We play musical instruments because we’ve always done that”. It makes it much harder for the Orthodox – driven by the same sense of mimetic tradition – to convince the Liberal crowd that they’re inot authentic enough.

  2. It creates a sense of holiness in the community. Shuls and communities suddently become ongoing bodies with long pasts and rituals that have nothing to do with who happens to be the Rabbi at the time. There is a sense of confidence in the community as an ongoing autonomous body.

  3. It creates trust and continuity between parents and children.

  4. It creates a sense of being educated and informed – the custom belongs to the congregation and not the Rabbi.

It also has some drawbacks. It hinders change (somewhat). It creates a sometimes false sense of trust in things that should really be changed. It is essentially foreign to our concept of personal autonomy.

But the greatest advantage of mimetic tradition is CONFIDENCE. It creates a framework where people are comfortable about who they are and what their tradition is, and they can relate in a pluralistic way to others and their traditions. “I put soup on the blech on shabbos. That’s what my mother did”. “I don’t comb my hair on shabbos. That’s what my father did”. “Oh, your minhag is to use electricity on yontif? That’s nice.” It makes sure nobody comes around and tries to be a halakhic dictator, like the CJLS tries to from time to time, like with the eating dairy out thing. And it also makes sure you don’t need to be a Rabbi or go to Rabbinical school to know how to behave Jewishly.

A mimetic tradition also helps those who have none because they can adopt one instead of going back to (usually silly and usually haredi) books and guides when they’re looking for help and/or frumkeit. You ask other people what they do – and thus save yourself the embarrasment and/or sheer silliness of not knowing what to do. It will also minimize the role of the Rabbi in congregations, who has to invent directives for people off the cuff every other week – and usually leaves the shul by the time a new generation comes around asking for advice.

But how do you form a mimetic tradition? That’s for the next post.

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4 Responses to “Mimetic Tradition, Part I”

  1. BZ said

    Yasher koach! I think this explains a lot for me — the fact that I grew up with a mimetic tradition in my family explains how I ended up as a confident liberal Jew. I had previously attributed this to the fact that I grew up in an area with no Orthodox community (and therefore no one else around whom we perceived as more authentically Jewish), and that’s probably still a part of it too.

    A few small points:

    The reform will be branded as antiquated itself and the entire system of practices will be abandoned (e.g. Israeli secularists)

    The founders of Israeli secularism came from Eastern Europe in the 19th century, where liberal religious Judaism didn’t really exist yet, and liberal religious Judaism has (unfortunately) never been a major influence in Israeli society since then, so I don’t see how Israeli secularism can be seen as a response to Reform.

    It also has some drawbacks. It hinders change (somewhat). It creates a sometimes false sense of trust in things that should really be changed.

    If these are the drawbacks of mimetic tradition, then the situation in some Reform communities may be even worse than you make it out to be, since they manage to have all the drawbacks without any of the advantages. That is, congregations do the same thing week after week because people don’t know any other way of doing things (and resist the unfamiliar), and therefore people don’t feel educated or informed so much as familiar with one specific minhag, but then still feel inauthentic like fish out of water when they are in any other contexts.

  2. biqoret said

    I should have clarified that small-r reform in this context is not the name of an organization or movement, but rather something people do – “a reform”. You’ll notice the Southern Baptist example: they’re reformed christians.
    In the same way, Israeli secularists reformed their Judaism. They made it into a national thing rather than a religion. They highlighted the socialist underpinnings of their Judaism and made the Kibbutz the center of it. The second and third and fourth generations became less nationalist and less socialist. Now they have nothing. (except the miliary, of course) This is part of the reason these people are back into their “everybody hates the Jews” mantra as an explanation for their sufferings.

  3. rebecca m said

    yay! Amit posted 🙂

    I grew up MO, but without a mimetic tradition, as my parents were newly observant*/Jewish, which certainly hurt my religious confidence as a child.

    *BZ, yes, I’ve thought about the framing there, and this is correct.

  4. Alisha said

    I’m glad that I saw the link to this hidden in the comments section in a Jewschool post. It was really interesting and you make a lot of good points. Maybe you could post it or a link to it on Jewschool.

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